Darnell Nurse will have to pass Griffin Reinhart to make the Edmonton Oilers

Reinhart, Griffin4

When Peter Chiarelli traded for Griffin Reinhart at the 2015 Draft, he did more than bring in a building block on the back end. He set up a formidable obstacle in the path of Darnell Nurse, who will now almost certainly have to pass the former No. 4 overall draft pick if he is to make the Oilers’ roster.

Logic Problem

When we assess the Oilers’ blue line, it becomes pretty clear that it’s going to be difficult to work in both Nurse and Reinhart, particularly since neither player will be well-served by starting the year in the press box. It should be uncontroversial to say that it’s far better for a player like Nurse to start the year in the minors than in the No. 7 or No. 8 role; he’s at a point in his development where he needs to play. The same holds true for Reinhart.

We can further assume that all of Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom, Mark Fayne and Justin Schultz will be in the top-six on opening night. Todd McLellan had them in the top-four on Day 1 of training camp and while that may not hold to the end of camp it’s a good indicator of how each is (justifiably) regarded by the organization.

That leaves two spots in the top-six. It is of course theoretically possible that Reinhart and Nurse fill those two spots, but doing that would leave McLellan with an ugly choice between playing an all-rookie third pairing or running two of three pairings with rookies on them.

That also leaves aside the difficulties of dealing with the team’s current veterans. If both Reinhart and Nurse sit in the top-six, that leaves Andrew Ference in the press-box (his no-move clause means he cannot be demoted) and either both of Eric Gryba and Nikita Nikitin waived or one waived and the other in the press-box next to Ference.

When we put it all together, it’s going to be very difficult for both Nurse and Reinhart to make the team. For it to happen, McLellan needs to be willing to run two rookies night-in and night-out on an already uncertain defence. Chiarelli needs to be willing to scratch or waive three veterans every night, including one he made a point of acquiring this summer. It almost certainly should not happen and it almost certainly will not happen.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign


The most recent indicator that Nurse was starting on the outside looking in came in camp when he was initially paired with David Musil. Ference and Nikitin started off together and Reinhart and Gryba started off together; that makes Nurse No. 9 on the depth chart.

It isn’t the only sign, though. Chiarelli has hinted throughout the summer that there might be value in sending Nurse to the minors. Some of his comments are listed below:

  • September 12: “He’s an energetic player, we have to teach him you don’t have to do six things, if you do three of those things very well, you can do the other three later and be good at them, so let’s take steps. He’s got some stuff to learn but there’s a lot to like there.”
  • September 12: “For a defenceman there’s more responsibilities so Darnell may have a steeper climb [to make the NHL] there.”
  • September 13: “There’s a lot of nuances to a defenceman’s game that he has to smooth out also. The enthusiasm’s there, and there’s a lot of good parts to his game, but the puck retrievals and when to funnel off passes and stuff like that. But that stuff will come… He’ll skate into a funnel [with the puck] a little bit. He makes some good plays. He’s exuberant, which is good. As I said, he’s been leading this team. Those are things that come with experience and coaching and I know he’s a real coachable kid.”

Reinhart has a year of professional experience under his belt, and it’s hard to overvalue that. He’s 13 months older than Nurse, and it’s hard to overvalue that at these players’ ages. He has lots of experience playing the right side, which makes it easier to shuffle him into other roles in the top-six; that matters a lot too given that whichever rookie makes the cut will be playing every night or close to it.

Chiarelli said something else in that September 12 interview which is illuminating. It was regarding Reinhart and the context was to do with the Oilers’ top two defence pairings:

We’ve got some guys we acquired, Griffin Reinhart who I believe is a terrific player. I think he needs a little bit of time to get up and running before I can anoint him in the top four.

To me, that sounds like the plan is to give Reinhart 10-20 games to see if he can push his way past a veteran and into the top-four on merit. If that happens, it likely triggers a trade, and simultaneously makes it much easier to slot Nurse in on the third pairing, particularly if Nurse has been dominant in the AHL over the same stretch.

Now, that plan may not survive training camp; the futures of all these players are in their hands and only a fool would dogmatically state that Nurse isn’t talented enough to alter minds, particularly since McLellan already made it plain that there are likely to be changes along the way. But the plan as outlined above is a sensible one for the team and the individuals, so if Nurse is going to shake it up he’s going to have to be very good in the preseason.



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  • D

    The Oilers are finally getting themselves into the mentality of not rushing players into the NHL. Nothing wrong with starting Nurse in the AHL to develop his game. It will help his pro career live long and prosper.

  • Oil Vice

    For one of them to stay in the AHL the entire defense has to stay healthy plus Nikitin and Ference need to bounce back and play better than the youngsters. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening.

    • Dan 1919

      I would say one of Ference, Gryba or Nikitan will be traded for sure anyway. If the situation occures that Nurse is hands down better than all three (not likely but possible) this year, I don’t think Chiarelli would hesitate to keep Nurse on the team and send two of those guys packing.

      It’s really way too early in camp, this D logjam could likely still work itself out by the end of camp… will be interesting to follow though.

    • Peter Chiarelli has said at least three different times this summer that training camp is different from the first 10 games and that’s different from the next 10 games.

      Beyond that, Nurse is a left-side defenceman, while Nikitin’s best NHL season came playing the right side. They may not be competing for the same spot.

  • Dan 1919

    Interesting to see it laid out, that means most likely two of Ference, Gryba & Nikitan will be cut this year… Should make for some good competition.

    I think the one wild card being overstated here is Schultz. Let’s face it, if he plays like he did last year, Chiarelli and Mclellan won’t turn a blind eye like Eakins and MacT.

    If Shultz hasn’t taken some large strides forward in the competition department, I won’t be surprised to see him alternating in the bottom 5/6 as well with Ference, Gryba & Nikitan

  • Spydyr

    I have seen many comments over the summer about the Oilers D and how they are young and potentially weak if both Nurse and Reinhart are starting 6 players.

    I subscribe to a different theory. While they are largely young with Nurse, Reinhart and Klefbom, they are potentially a very dynamic group. Each of the 3 can skate well. Each can handle the puck and make decent passes. Each is big enough and strong enough to handle forwards in the D zone.

    While I don’t predict tremendous success this season, there is definitely the possibility that the Oilers have their defensive core.

  • Joy S. Lee

    If Chia and McLellan were here last year , I doubt they would want to go with all the reclamation group of Schultz , Ference and Nikitin . Twenty games into season they could readily regret that decision to go with them . They are not familiar with them or youngsters as yet . Nurse brings an offensive game that is lacking with current group beyond Schultz , and that’s hard to ignor . He also has speed and physicality much better than most as well . His warts and mistakes are minimal . Does Reinhart bring more to table than Nurse ? I am not sold he does as yet , and Nurse carries a lot less bonus cap hit than Reinhart .

  • For Pete's Sake!

    Chia does not believe Nurse is ready. Nurse has outstanding potential (top 2 within 4 yrs IMHO) but he still needs development. Lets not rush him given we don’t have to.

    Reinhart is the only “rookie” that has a legitimate shot at playing this year without injuries. The only top 4 I that might not be there over the season is Schultz but then he moves to the final pairing so really we have 2 spots for Gryba, Ference, Nikitin and Reinhart. Gryba is almost certainly in leaving one spot for the 3. My money is on Nikitin, then Reinhart then Ference. These 3 will also likely see injury replacement time.

  • Joy S. Lee

    Incompetence abounds.

    Why the Oilers have not long ago made serious trades to have in place a competent defense is so hard to understand.

    There is no case that justifies playing any of the NSF cluster.

    You know this.

    Better this season is devoted to Nurse and Reinhart than have the team lose on nightly basis as the NSF do thier thing.

    To have Schultz in the top four is beyond belief. Remember this – he is not a defenseman. He does not have one basic defensive instinct in his personality.

    • No player has ever bounced back from a poor campaign, ever. The coaches, managers and scouts along the way who drafted, developed and played this trio in hundreds of NHL games are all incompetent. The new coach and manager are incompetent too, because these players weren’t bought out and are being treated as though they have a shot at the NHL roster.

      Yeah, I think that tracks cleanly.

  • Dan 1919

    If they both need time down in the minors so be it. Dont rush things.
    Its AC/DC day in Edmonton. Sorry Connor Angus rules on this day. Its Rock Or Bust

  • For Pete's Sake!

    There are once again rumours that Nikitin has arrived at training camp out of shape. If true, the guy should be waived right out of the NHL. I wouldn’t even want him sent to the AHL for fear of the “bad attitude” he might pass on to some of our promising young Russian prospects playing there. Why was this guy ever signed??? I’d take a raw rookie mistake prone Nurse over Nikitin any day!

  • Edsez

    That a defenceman right out of juniors would have to earn his roster spot and pay his dues by putting in time in the AHL seems to be the definition of 1st world problems

    The first days training camp reports have mentioned the pairings but nothing on how they looked or whether they reported in shape and injury-free … I’m thinking specifically of Nikitin here … is there a chance he’s recognized that this is a contract year and is ready to perform like his career is dependent on it and show that he is a NHL calibre defenceman?

  • mcjesus take the wheel

    Good write up Willis but I think this only applies IF Grif has improved his skating substantially. I’m hoping he does and becomes a top 4 guy but what I saw last year he wasn’t there. Nurse still has kinks to work out but his skating alone keep him ahead of Grif imo. Have not had a chance yet to see if Grif has improved enough.

  • Joy S. Lee

    Excellent analysis; I agree pretty much entirely. Might expound on JW’s emphasis that Darnell Nurse may be capable of forcing their hand, he seems to be that type of guy, very determined. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing, just like him leading the charge as a 30-minute #1 in Bakersfield wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.

    The massive change occurring in the D-group is pretty much all good, and I really like that the team chose to rebuild the D based on youth – to coincide with the forward core.

  • Joy S. Lee

    It won’t hurt Nurse to spend a few months in the minors in fact in will probably be a great benefit to get top minutes against men to hone his skills. He will be on the main team before the end of the year. Although they say imitation is a form of flattery I have been using the nom de gere Johnny Larue here and on Lowtide for a few years now and I would hope that “Jonny Larue” would choose a new handle to avoid confusion

  • Joy S. Lee

    Where is the Ference love ? He performed about as good as Fayne did last year by the numbers , and close to Shultz . To his credit he was also our captain . Will Reinhart , Gryba , Nikitin or Nurse perform any better at this stage ? Might be premature to write him off just yet until they are sure .

  • 1979

    Great article! I think the defense (barring a trade) is coming into view pretty quickly: Sekera-Fayne Klefbom – Schultz Reinhart – Gryba. I think Ference and Gryba will rotate with likely a few nights off for Reinhart. Nikitin will either be kept as an 8 or waived unless he really shows something in camp. I think the battle truly is between Gryba, Ference, and Nikitin. Sure Nurse could play his way in to start the year, but from the verbal, I think it is slim to none. A trade could change everything, but I think the verbal thus far lands us squarely with the above!

  • O.C.

    Willis. Correct.

    Another reason this works is I’ve yet to see a season for any NHL team where the top 7 D go through the year without something unpredictable taking players out of the lineup for a few days or for an entire season.

    The top 7 have a few games to get through to get to game 1 even.